calligraphy by the poet Li Po

Chinese calligraphy reached its peak during Jin Dynasty (266–420) and the Tang Dynasty (618-906), which was also a golden age for poetry and art. During the Tang Dynasty the government set up academies for studying calligraphy and calligraphy was one the six subjects studied at the National Academy. It seemed that the whole society — from the Emperors down ordinary people — passionately embraced calligraphy. In the early Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong loved Wang Xizhi's calligraphy and spent government money to acquire his works. This led to many calligraphers studying Wang Xizhi's styles and trying to cash in on forging his pieces. Popular scripts in the Jin period included Kai (regular script) Xin (walking), and Tsao (running, semi-cursive) Styles. All calligraphy styles were widely seen in the Tang Dynasty. Calligraphers specializing in Tsao Shu included Zhang Xu, Huaisu, and Sun Guoting. [Source: art-virtue.com ]

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “During the Tang period, the predominant script was the regular or standard script, with a stylistic emphasis on brush methods or structure. The regular script was believed to have reached its maturity during the early Tang, representing a culmination of previous regional developments. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“Tang calligraphy has been noted for its solidity and strength, which were also believed to demonstrate the author's irreproachable moral character. Although the majority of calligraphers during the Tang period made their most distinctive contributions to the development of a mature standard or regular script, the cursive script type would in time be the most favored for its ability to express the individual calligrapher's aesthetic preferences and inner character.” /=\

Tang calligraphy is discussed here in terms of four main directions of its development: 1) the court and the styles it favored, 2) the adoption of other styles by literati, 3) the continuing importance of copying religious texts, and 4) the development of individualist styles. In later writings on Chinese calligraphy, each historical period would be associated with a particular script type and the attitudes attributed to it. For example, the Six Dynasties period is associated with the cursive and running scripts, with a primary emphasis on "resonance" and harmony, likely because of the close relationship between calligraphy and lyric expression in poetry during this era. /=\

Websites and Sources on Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Painting, University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Calligraphy, University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China -Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ;Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum.net

History of Tang Calligraphy

calligraphy by the poet Du Fu

According to the Shanghai Museum: Tang Regular script derived from the Official script. Known for its strict regulation and rigorus style, it eveolve din the Sui Dynasty but attained its highest level in the Tang Dynasty. This script heralded a new era in calligraphy and laid a foundation for calligraphy that continued for over the next thousand years. The Regular script of the Sui dynasty was more cursive in brush mood and underlined a change in style. In fact, the authentic and adapted script-styles of this period often mirrored each other in their progression. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

The early Tang dynasty styles are best represented by the works of Ouyang Xun, Yu Shinan, Chu Suiliang and Xue Ji. Their works set and exemplified the conventions of the Regular script, disciplined brush control and vigorous brush strokes. Yan Zhengqing, known for his vigorous and dignified style which some say represented the sppirit of Tang culture, and Liu Gongquan were important calligraphers of the late Tang period.

From the Cursive script style of Sun Guoting emerged the ‘Wild Cursive’ script of Zhang Xu and Monk Huaisu. Yan Zhenqing from the study of the ancient masters, developed his own idiosyncratic Regular script. Zhang Xu (675-c.750), born in Wu (today's Suzhou, Jiangsu province) in the Tang dynasty, was known for his cursive script. There is a famous inscription on Stele Lang Guan Shi Ji by Zhang Xu. This stele was carved in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, in the 29th year of Kaiyuan (AD 741). As Song rubbings, this piece of work is the only regular script of Zhang Xu in existence. The refined strictness and elegant standard of this work demonstrates various aspects of his profound skills.

Tang Calligraphy Aesthetics

Tang era calligraphy is known for both its powerful court styles and experimental new styles. Although the Tang period is closely associated with the standard script as a result of its being adopted by the court, other types continued to be in use.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Between the time of Wang Xizhi and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, calligraphy had come to be seen as a vehicle for expressing one's social status and learning. There was also a very close relationship between poetry and calligraphy as practiced by the educated elite from this time forward. More and more people who practiced calligraphy sought to develop facility with a variety of styles and script types. One of the means by which they did so was copying familiar texts that contained a wide range of simple and complicated characters.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “Consider two Tang-dynasty texts that describe calligraphy in human terms, both physical and moral. Here, the properly written character assumes the identity of a Confucian sage, strong in backbone, but spare in flesh: 1) "[A written character should stand] balanced on all four sides... Leaning or standing upright like a proper gentleman, the upper half [of the character] sits comfortably, while the bottom half supports it." (From an anonymous essay, Tang dynasty). 2) "Calligraphy by those good in brush strength has much bone; that by those not good in brush strength has much flesh. Calligraphy that has much bone but slight flesh is called sinew-writing; that with much flesh but slight bone is called ink-pig. Calligraphy with much strength and rich in sinew is of sagelike quality; that with neither strength nor sinew is sick. Every writer proceeds in accordance with the manifestation of his digestion and respiration of energy." (From Bizhentu, 7th century). [Source:Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Calligraphy of a Bai Juyi poem

Other writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to express the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words: 1) "[When viewing calligraphy," I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright. (Sun Guoting, 7th century). 2) A dragon leaping at the Gate of Heaven. (Description of the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi by Emperor Wu [r. 502-49]). \^/

“And so, despite its abstract appearance, calligraphy is not an abstract form. Chinese characters are dynamic, closely bound to the forces of nature and the kinesthetic energies of the human body. But these energies are contained within a balanced framework—supported by a strong skeletal structure—whose equilibrium suggests moral rectitude, indeed, that of the writer himself.” \^/

Tang Calligraphy, Buddhism and the Art of Copying

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Although the style of calligraphy developed by Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi was widely admired and practiced during their lifetimes, its continued influence on later calligraphers depended on the dissemination of original writings or reliable facsimiles to practitioners in other locales and to later generations. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“During the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 589-618) the monk Zhiyong, a seventh-generation descendant of Wang Xizhi, produced many copies of traditional Wang style writings for distribution among various temples throughout (modern day) Zhejiang province. Zhiyong was also the teacher of Yu Shinan, an assistant in the Palace Library at the Sui court who went on to hold more senior academic positions at the early Tang court under Taizong. The Tang emperor appreciated Yu's steadfast personality and extensive learning as well as his excellence as a calligrapher. /=\

“It is important to note here that copying, in the history of both Chinese painting and calligraphy, does not carry the same pejorative connotation that it does in the European tradition, where the copy invariably stands in a subsidiary and inferior relationship to its original. Copying in China, on the other hand, was seen as a valuable educational tool, allowing the writer to model his writing stylistically, and more importantly, himself, on the character and intellect of the master calligrapher whose mode of writing he practiced.” /=\

“Religious calligraphy continued to be of great importance during the Tang. Until the widespread use of printing in China after the Tang dynasty, religious texts were copied by hand. Buddhist texts in particular were copied in great numbers by monks or by individuals. Copies of the entire Buddhist canon were undertaken by imperial decree, and often the work of many individual calligraphers went into the completion of various sutra texts, which could be quite long. When sutra texts were commissioned, it was common practice to have the most talented calligraphers do the first and last scrolls, with the work parceled out to other scribes in between. The brush used for sutra copying was different in shape from a regular calligraphy brush, with a much shorter tip. Decorative refinements, such as the use of specially made papers and gold or silver inks, were employed in the copying of religious texts, but rarely occur in secular examples.” /=\

Calligraphy and the Tang Emperor's

calligraphy by Emperor Taizong

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the era from the Southern Dynasties (420-589) to the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the emperor played a leading role in the connoisseurship and collection, organization and mounting, and copying and carving in stone of masterpieces by such renowned calligraphers as Wang Xizhi, who consequently became lauded as a model for the classical tradition of calligraphy. From the middle Tang period thereafter, the refined and sophisticated style of court calligraphy changed as calligraphers from the commoner class increasingly added a technical flair as a form of personal embellishment to their writing. Scholar-calligraphers in particular emphasized the expression of emotions, so personal character, learning, and cultivation became important elements for critically evaluating calligraphy, establishing a new turning point that served as a foundation for later scholar-calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Calligraphy is an art form that has been closely associated with political power throughout China's history. Tang Taizong (r. A.D. 626-649) himself was an avid collector of Wang Xizhi calligraphy during his day, and went to extreme lengths to gather up all the known extant Wang Xizhi works. He commissioned professional copyists to do careful reproductions of the works in the imperial collection and patronized Wang-style calligraphers at his court, many of whom held high-ranking posts. Taizong took Wang Xizhi as the model for his own writing, which he practiced using copies provided by Yu Shinan (who because of his teacher Zhiyong was believed to be the closest Tang dynasty practitioner to the original Wang style). [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Taizong reportedly tried to obtain the original manuscripts of Wang Xizhi by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Taizong so admired Wang's work he took the calligrapher's famous “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave. Of the more prominent academicians at Taizong's court, Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun were valued as keepers of the calligraphic tradition, serving as tutors to the sons of nobility and as scholars of rank in the Palace library and Institute for the Advancement of Literature, respectively. /=\

“Ode on Pied Wagtails" is the only surviving work of calligraphy by the Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung ruled 712-756). It was mounted in the late Hsuan-ho reign (1119-1125) of Emperor Hui-tsung in the Song Dynasty using the horizontal mounting format of the inner court collection known as the "Hsuan-ho mounting." One of the most obvious features of this format is that it follows a set pattern. Around the sides of the work are impressions of such seals as "Yu-shu " (gourd-shaped), "Shuang-lung " (square), "Shuang-lung " (round), "Hsuan-ho " (connected bead), "Cheng-ho," "Hsuan-ho," and "Cheng-ho " (connected bead). Together they form the "Seven seals of Hsuan-ho." The endpiece would include another seal impression for "Nei-fu t'u-shu chih yin," which means "Seal of the Inner Court Library." In front of the artwork would be a title calligraphed by Hui-tsung (1082-1135) in his distinctive "slender gold script. This work, however, does not include Hui-tsung's title or the round "Shuang-lung" seal impression of two dragons, while only half appear for "Hsuan-ho" and "Yu-shu," indicating they were probably cropped during a later remounting. On the other hand, some scholars consider this as evidence that it might not be an original work by Xuanzong.

Famous Tang Calligraphers

Cho U (Chang Hsu) from the mid-Tang period is famous for his "tipsy" cursive that provided an alternative to the classic style of Wang Xizhi . Whenever Cho painted when he was drunk it was said that his brushes flied and danced with unbridled emotion. Huaisu was even less restrained than Cho U. He was famous from his extremely fluid and spontaneous "wild" cursive. Wang Wei (701–759) was admired as a poet, painter and calligrapher. who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings."

Yu Shinan and Ouyang Xun were famous calligraphers in Taizong’s court. They served as tutors to the sons of nobility and as scholars of rank in the Palace library and Institute for the Advancement of Literature, respectively. The characters in their calligraphy was regular script. Both precision and spontaneity were required to make high-quality works. Chu Suiliang (A.D. 596-658) is well-known early Tang calligrapher. The style used in his early life was said to be solid and firm. The sensitive, delicate style of his later years has been described as "a frail lady unable to bear the weight of her own garments." [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Gao Xian is famous for his “Thousand Character Essay,” which displays alternating lines of regular and running script. Born in Wucheng (present-day Huzhou, Zhejiang Province), he was an eminent monk who lived during the mid-Tang Dynasty. Only 243 characters of the original one thousand characters are left. “Thousand character essay,” is regarded as a great calligraphic achievement of the mid-Tang Dynasty and is known for the charming vitality of its free and spontaneous brushstrokes. The Handscroll is Cursive Script, Ink on paper (length: 30.8 centimeters, Width: 311.3 centimeters). [Source: Cultural China]

Individualist Styles of Tang Calligraphy

20080303-Can Zheng Tie runnings cript, northern soing, shang M.jpg
Running script

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Individualism became an important strain in painting, calligraphy, and poetry during the middle to later years of the Tang dynasty. As the central political sphere declined, there was an upsurge in localized unorthodox creative activity which seemed to stand outside all previous traditions. Daoist painters got drunk and painted with their hair or dragged each other across the paper’s surface, and their Chan counterparts sought similar release from societal constraints in calligraphy through the use of a new style of writing aptly named "wild cursive." [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“The moral and civic value attached to modeling oneself on the great early Tang masters of the standard script from Taizong's court was still recognized, but the new emphasis on individuality, the spontaneous, and the uninhibited marked a profound shift in calligraphic practice from an ultimately conservative tradition to one that favored self-expression and change. /=\

As court calligraphers throughout the Tang period were engaged in setting and maintaining a standard for elegant writing in the Wang tradition, the actual forms of calligraphy championed by the court became increasingly conventionalized and stagnant. Wild cursive, a radically modified version of the draft cursive script of the Han dynasty, can be seen as a reaction against the atrophied writing styles of later Wang tradition calligraphers. /=\

Zhang Xu and Wild Cursive Calligraphy

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Zhang Xu (active A.D. 710-750) was said to be the originator of the wild cursive script. He enjoyed considerable fame in his own day, and is counted among the Tang poet Du Fu’s "Eight Drunken Immortals." Although wild cursive seems to break radically from all past traditions, Zhang Xu did base his writing style on one of the more prominent earlier calligraphers. It is believed that he was further influenced by the Daoist practice of automatic writing in sand. Zhang Xu's calligraphic style is widely praised, especially by later scholars, yet one of the by-products of his style is a pronounced deformation of word structures.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Zhang Xu (courtesy name Bogao) was a poet as well as calligrapher. A native of Suzhou, he became an official during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong. Zhang was known as one of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup. Legend has it that whenever he was drunk, he would use his hair as brush to perform his art, and upon his waking up, he would be amazed by the quality of his work but was unable to produce them again when sober. Under the excitement of art (and wine), he became oblivious of social expectations, and would often fling off his cap in the presence of princes and nobles and thus became to be known as “Zhang the Madman”. [Source: Wikipedia]

Though more well known for his explosive cursive script, he excelled in the regular script was known as the Divine Grassist for his great skill in the grass (cursive) script. There is a story that says he grasped the essence of cursive writing by observing some porters fight for their way with the guard of honor of some princess, and by watching the solo performance of a famous sword-dancer named Lady Gongsun. Zhang is often paired with the younger Huaisu (735?-800?) as the two greatest cursive calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty. The two are affectionately known in China as "the crazy Zhang and the drunk Su". Zhang Xu was the teacher/model for the monk Huaisu, a man of letters known as as the "Drunken Monk" for his wild cursive mode of writing.

Essay on Calligraphy by Sun Guoting

“Essay on Calligraphy”by Sun Guoting (Sun Kuo-t'ing, 646-691) is regarded as a masterpiece. It is an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 26.5 x 900.8 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei it “uniquely combines the finest of writing, theory, and calligraphy all in one long handscroll. This surviving handscroll of cursive script is about nine meters long and consists of about 3,700 characters in 351 lines. This masterpiece was written by the learned theorist and practitioner of calligraphy Sun Guoting and completed in the third year of the Ch'ui-kung year (687). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“In Sun Guoting's own words, he started paying attention to calligraphy at the Chinese age of 15, delving into it for several decades thereafter. With calligraphy his labor of love, combined with an exceptional talent in it, Sun's efforts led him to become praised by critics through the ages. He was determined to compose a work to assist beginning students of calligraphy, but unfortunately unable to complete it before his death, leaving only this preface, the contents of which can be divided into four main parts.

“The first part discusses achieving “breadth” and “skill” in calligraphy, emphasizing the importance of skill in all the major script types. The second is a description of the principles behind recording “Essay on Calligraphy.” The third emphasizes the copying of models, reminding scholars that when copying they must focus on spiritual elements and not just external forms. The final part is a description of the process, attitude, and realm in studying calligraphy. “Essay on Calligraphy” contains both elegant and coarser manners of expression all together in one piece. In the more elegant parts, the brushwork is gentle with more graceful. In coarser sections, the brushwork is quick without ornamentation. It seems that Sun Guoting intentionally sought to provide concrete examples of the various forms of beauty in calligraphy when doing this work.

Autobiography by Huaisu

“Autobiography”, by Huaisu (fl. latter half of 8th century), is an nk on paper handscroll, measuring 28.3 x 755 centimeters. Huaisu (735?-800?) was one of greatest cursive calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty. He was a man of letters but is known as the "Drunken Monk" for his wild cursive mode of writing. He was a student of Zhang Xu — “The Madman”. The two are affectionately known in China as "the crazy Zhang and the drunk Su". In one of the extant examples of his calligraphy, Huaisu complains about eating bitter bamboo shoots, and also admits his unbounded passion for liquor and fish.

According to National Palace Museum, Taipei: Huaisu (Huai-su) was a monk who originally went by the surname Ch'ien and the style name Ts'ang-chen. Born in Ling-ling County, Hunan, he later moved to Ch'ang-sha. As a youth, he became interested in Buddhism, eventually taking the tonsure. Huaisu was more renowned, however, as a devotee to the art of cursive script. At around 772, he traveled north to the capital Ch'ang-an and Loyang. His cursive script, similar in spirit to his free and unrestrained personality, was greatly admired by famous contemporaries, poets, and other calligraphers, such as Yan Zhenqing (709-785), who all presented him with gifts of prose and poetry. In 777, Huaisu transcribed some of these with a preface in “wild” cursive script to create this handscroll.

“In this work, Huaisu used a fine brush to write characters. The strokes are rounded and dashing, like steel wires curled and bent into shape. The tip of the brush is exposed where it lifts from the paper, leaving a distinctive hook — hence the description “steel strokes and silver hooks” for Huaisu's calligraphy. A continuous cursive force also permeates the entire piece. The brush skirts up, down, left, and right as it speeds across the paper. The crescendos of the brush, like a sword, reveal varying speeds, the calligraphy appearing light and heavy in places. In other words, this work is like a symphony of distinct rhythms, harmonies, and sections where the instruments are all seamlessly orchestrated for an overall sense of feeling and depth. In addition to the strokes, the dots suggest breaks to the flowing strokes. In the relentless force of the brushwork, the centered brush swirls and dances to create character after character and line after line, only to be punctuated by the impeccably placed dots. Despite this piece being an example of “wild” cursive script, it also has a great sense of regularity. Thus, the handscroll represents the ultimate in cursive script — control with freedom and spirit with restraint.

Yan Zhenqing and His Strong, Moralistic Calligraphy

20080303-cursive script Zhu Yunmingf, Ming shnag M.jpg
Cursive script
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Yan Zhenqing (A.D. 709-785) was a leading figure among loyalists to the Tang throne during the politically turbulent eighth century. He was a dedicated and brilliant military figure who suffered great personal loss at the hands of aspirants to the throne yet remained unswerving in his loyalty to the legitimate ruling house. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

“Because of his reputation as a staunchly moral and principled individual, Yan Zhenqing's forceful and majestic individual style assumed the heroic proportions of his own life. One of the requisite techniques of Chinese calligraphy is maintaining the brush's upright position in order to transfer more directly and powerfully the flow of energy from hand to paper. From Yan Zhenqing's time forward, saying someone wrote with an "upright brush" carried an especially strong tone of moral approbation. His calligraphy was particularly influential among literati of the Northern Song, including Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian. /=\

“Evaluative writings on calligraphy often equate the structure ("architecture") and line quality of the written word with the physical human self. Some examples are criticized for being too "fleshy" while lacking in bone structure. Yan Zhenqing's regular script inscriptions contrasts with the more orthodox court tradition that favored the elegance and ease of Wang Xizhi style calligraphy, represented by Chu Suiliang from the time of Taizong and Li Yong, the foremost Wang tradition calligrapher of the first half of the eighth century. Although some of Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy is riddled with mistakes and corrections, his writing has been especially valued by connoisseurs.” /=\

Requiem to My Nephew by Yan Zhenqing

“Requiem to My Nephew”by Yan Zhenqing (758) has been heralded by later generations as the second most important work of running script calligraphy after Wang Xizhi's “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering”. It is an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 28.3 x 75.5 centimeters. Yan Zhenqing (Yen Chen-Qing, 709-785) lived during the Tang dynasty

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Yan Zhenqing was a native of Lin-i in Shandong. After the revolt of Huai-hsi Military Commissioner Li Hsi-lieh in 784, Yan Zhenqing was ordered by the court to seek his surrender, but on September 10, 785, he refused to submit to the rebel out of loyalty and was murdered. Later generations respectfully referred to him as “Yen, Duke of Lu” and “Yen of P'ing-Yuan.” Earlier during the rebellion of An Lu-shan (ca. 703-757), Yan Zhenqing's cousin Yen Kao-Qing was serving as Magistrate of Ch'ang-shan. When rebel forces invaded the area, Tang armies under T'ai-Yuan Military Commissioner Wang Ch'eng-yeh did not come to the rescue, resulting in the fall of the town and the slaughter of the loyal Yen Kao-Qing, his son Yen Chi-ming, and the entire Yen clan there (more than thirty in all). This is what Yan Zhenqing meant when he wrote in this piece, “A traitorous official did not come to the rescue, so a lone town was surrounded. A father and son perished, their (entire) nest destroyed.” After the incident, Yan Zhenqing sent his elder nephew Ch'uan-ming to the town to make funerary arrangements. However, he could only find the foot of Kao-Qing and the skull of Chi-ming. It was under these heart-wrenching circumstances that Yan Zhenqing wrote “Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew” at the Chinese age of 50. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Scholars have pointed out that the character of a person is revealed by his or her calligraphy. Yan Zhenqing was renowned as a man of loyalty and integrity all his life, and this spirit is fully revealed in his calligraphy. As such, this handscroll is one of the works most frequently cited by scholars. Done with a stubby brush, Yen imparted a round and upright manner to the strokes that suggests flowing seal script. Though the ink is so dark that it appears scorched, considerable variety to the ink tones from start to finish is due to the speed and movement of the brush. Consequently, it looks as if written in a single sitting.

“This scroll was a preliminary draft for a more formal composition. Consequently, Yan Zhenqing went back and crossed out and changed characters in numerous places. This shows how he composed and edited his writing, providing insight into his ideas as well as his calligraphy. Despite the formality of the content, the style reveals considerable ups and downs emotionally, making this one of the premier examples from the hand of Yan Zhenqing and praised as “the second best work of running script under the Heavens.”

Calligraphy of the Song Dynasty

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the Song dynasty (960-1279), the tradition of engraving modelbook copies became a popular way to preserve the works of ancient masters. Song scholar-artists, however, were not satisfied with just following tradition, for they considered calligraphy also as a means of creative and personal expression. Attention was paid to organizing and expounding traditions in the study of calligraphy, with the engraving of modelbooks becoming increasingly important. Song calligraphers promoted ancient styles and simultaneously pursued the raising of artistic realms in calligraphy, tending towards expressions of personal character and cultivation.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

According to the Shanghai Museum: The flowering of the early Northern Song calligraphy resulted from the introduction of new techniques and the artistic appeal of the tradition of Tang style calligraphy. It was in the middle and late Song that the ‘Four Maters of the Song Dynasty’ emerged: Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu and Cai Xiang. They all excelled at the Running Script, which they embellished with their individual styles. Their greatness can be attributed to an emphasis on individual aesthetics. Zhao Ji, on the other hand, also invented his own unique ‘Shou Jin’ Style. Southern Song calligrapher, such as Zhang Jizhi, were noted for their vigorous and imposing works. The scholar officials, Sima Guang, Wang Anshi and others were novel but simpler in calligraphic expression. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

20080303-wu zhen 1280-1354 plum and bamboio u wash.jpg
Plum and Bamboo by Wu Zhen

Northern Song (960-1127) Calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In terms of calligraphy, the rise of scholar-calligraphers in the Northern Sung resulted in the closer relationship between this art form and the artist, making it an ideal form for further expressing ideas and feelings. Many masters of Northern Sung calligraphy were quite knowledgeable and talented intellectuals, as calligraphers used the establishment of personal styles that came into fashion to write their own poetry and give expression to the main contents, with the exception of official documents, of course. In addition, textual verification through colophons, calligraphy theory, and casual letters became increasingly popular and also fully reflected the rich culture of life at the time. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind” by Huang Tingjian (1045-1105) is an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 121.8 x 129.1 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Huang Tingjian, a native of Jiangxi province, was a great poet of the period and ranked along with Su Shih, Mi Fu, and Cai Xiang as one of the Four Northern Song Masters of Calligraphy.. Northern Song scholar-officials advocated purity and naturalness in the arts of poetry, prose, calligraphy, and painting. Calligraphers rejected the strict, formal qualities of Tang standard script and searched for freedom in individual expression and creativity. Huang was one of the most outstanding among them. His semi-standard script clearly reveals the beauty of slanting strokes. His lines are exaggerated yet harmonious, while the brushwork is rounded and strong, especially where the strokes stop and start in his unique "trembling" style. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

"Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind" presents a touch of sadness within a mood of joy. Taking the opportunity to narrate a passage from a trip to the Wuchang Western Hills, Huang Tingjian fondly remembered a friend who had also traveled to this location, expressing a strong desire that his friend could share the beautiful scenery with him. Finally, Huang hoped to be able to free himself from the entanglement of his current situation and go with friends together on a boating trip. As he did the calligraphy, Huang’s wave-like features and large diagonally falling strokes, the pressing and lifting of the brush, and turns in the brushwork are found everywhere within the manner of regular script. The transformations are extremely well-handled, and the light stops and gradual lifting of the brush have a grace and bearing in a harmonious manner that shows Huang Tingjian ’s aloofness from worldly concerns in later years and a self satisfaction at heart. \=/

“Discourse on Calligraphy”, by Mi Fu (1051-1107), is an ink on paper album leaf, measuring 28.8 x 41.9 centimeters. Mi Fu, a native of Hubei, served as an official in the Northern Song. As a skilled calligrapher, painter, and connoisseur, he was appointed Doctor of Painting and Calligraphy under Huizong (r. 1101-1125), thereby giving him the opportunity to examine the treasures in the imperial collection. This work is part of a discourse on cursive script. Taking the calligraphy of the Jin Dynasty (265-420) as the standard, Mi Fu's contents include a hint of criticism for the cursive script of such Tang dynasty (618-907) calligraphers as Chang Hsu, Huaisu, Kao Hsien, and Tzu Kuang. Admiration for the Chin over the Tang is often seen in Mi Fu's discourses on calligraphy. Since this work is completely in the manner of the Two Wangs of the Chin (Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi) without a hint of the wild cursive of the Tang, it shows that Mi Fu indeed "practiced what he preached."

"On Sichuan Silk" is a handscroll that includes eight poems on six subjects in a variety of formats, including five- and seven-character archaic, truncated, and regulated verse. The entire scroll is composed of 556 characters in a total of 71 lines, being a masterpiece by Mi Fu at the age of 37. On one hand, the contents of the poetry reveal Mi Fu’s ambitions as an official and his praise of the literary talents of the recipient of the scroll. On the other hand, Mi Fu, using a precious piece of Sichuan silk, performed calligraphy to the best of his abilities, moving the brush both quick and slow, sometimes light and fleeting while at other times steady and heavier. The concealment and expressiveness of the brushwork was unconstrained by conventions as characters appear in a variety of positions with both force and beauty. Even within the same stroke or character, one can find different calligraphic methods used, thereby revealing Mi Fu's skill at an infinite variety of forms as well as his calligraphic expression that differs from that of Su Shih and Huang T'ing-chien.” \=/

Su Shi (1037-1101) was a famous writer and calligrapher in the Northern Song period. His "The Cold Food Observance" (ca. 1084-1086), Huang T'ing-chien's "Poem on the Hall of Pines and Wind" (ca. 1102), and Mi Fu's "On Sichuan Silk" (1088) are important works of poetry composed and calligraphed by these three great masters of Northern Sung calligraphy. These three handscrolls all employ the most appropriate means of expression and personalized running script for the calligraphy, the contents of the poetry being related to the vicissitudes in the lives of these calligraphers. The expressions of the calligraphers shown here also reflect the emotions and thoughts at the time when the calligraphy was done. See Separate Article SU SHI —THE QUINTESSENTIAL SCHOLAR-OFFICIAL-POETfactsanddetails.com

Poem and Calligraphy by Emperor Huizong

Emperor Huizong (Hui-tsung)

Emperor Huizong (Hui-tsung (1082-1135; r. 1100-1125) was regarded as an excellent poet, calligrapher, and painter. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: He was the eighth emperor of the Sung dynasty and one of the greatest patrons of art to sit on the throne. When soldiers of the Chin captured the Sung capital of Kaifeng in 1126, Huizong was captured, along with most of the imperial family and treasures. Though he was one of the first emperors in Chinese history to be considered a gifted artist in his own right, he has also been blamed for the neglect of state. During the Huizong era (1119-1125), he gathered together the most gifted artists and promoted the formal study of the arts at court. As an ardent supporter of both calligraphy and painting, the art produced at court featured a rare fusion of both technical expertise and spiritual refinement.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

On a handscroll, ink on silk (27.2 x 265.9 centimeters) by Emperor Huizong, the National Palace Museum, Taipei says: “This particular work reveals his style of calligraphy known to later generations as "slender gold." Indeed, his brushwork was not only slender, but also so precise and refined that it looks as precious as gold. While many accounts concerning the origin of this style exist, it is known that Hui-tsung studied the regular script of such T'ang masters as Ch'u Sui-liang (596-658), Hsueh Chi (649-713), and Hsueh Yao and then imitated the late style of Huang T'ing-chien (1045-1105). The thin and tensile qualities which give the script its name are similar to the outer strokes painting orchid and bamboo leaves. In other words, the brush touches lightly and is retracted with force, producing knobby places at the turns. Consequently, despite the thin and stiff features, it has an even, light and elegant feeling. The structure appears balanced and refined and is visually and poetically pleasing. Although the calligraphy here appears strict and regulated, it is also free from many of the conventions of other calligraphic scripts.

Southern Song (1127-1279) Calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: In his early years the first Southern Song Emperor Gaozong (personal name Zhao Gou) studied the calligraphy of his father, Emperor Huizong of the late Northern Song, specializing somewhat in the styles of such famous Northern Song scholar-calligraphers as Huang Tingjian and Mi Fu. Later, Gaozong traced his studies back to the "Sage Calligrapher," Wang Xizhi, copying the brush methods of ancient masters from the Wei and Jin up to the Six Dynasties period. Gaozong consequently had an enormous impact on the practice of calligraphy at the Southern Song court. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The Diamond Sutra”, translated by Kumarajiva of Yao Qin dynasty and handwritten by Zhang Jizhi of Southern Song Dynasty in 1253, is fine example of religious calligraphy. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Transcription of sutras is a method method of accumulating merits in Buddhism, and was a favorite pastime of ancient literati from all ages; Zhang Jizhi of Southern Song Dynasty was one of the best well known. Zhang Jizhi (1185~1263) was a renowned calligrapher from the Southern Song Dynasty; he learned from Mi Fu and referred to Ouyang Xun and Yen Zhang Jizhi in creating his own calligraphy style. His writing was careful in structure and was known for the strength in his strokes. This Diamond Sutra was transcribed on July 18th in the first year of Baoyo period of the Southern Song Dynasty (1253), the characters are elegant and flowing. Although he had written in regular script, one can still sense a touch of the running script. \=/

“Imperial Order Presented to Yue Fei” by Emperor Gaozong (1107-1187) is an ink on paper handscroll, measuring 36.7 x 61.5 centimeters: According to the National Palace Museum: In the autumn of 1137, during the early Southern Song, Yue Fei (1103-1142) led troops on an inspection tour of border defenses against the Jurchen of the Jin. Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127-1162) wrote this imperial missive in response to Yue Fei's report, praising and exhorting his steadfast loyalty to the country. This letter written in regular script also has elements of running script. The strokes and dots are refined, the bearing of characters quite elegant. Though it belongs to the category of an imperial decree and was written at a time of compelling military concern, the line spacing from beginning to end is consistent, fully revealing Gaozong's achievement in calligraphy. \=/

Zhang Jizhi (1168-1263) was a calligrapher in the Southern Song dynasty. “Yucheng’s Dai Lou Yuan Ji”, a running script handscroll, is the manuscript of Wang Yucheng’s Dai Lou Yuan Ji in the Northern Song dynasty. His calligraphy was written with a stiff brush in large characters. The font features a strict structure, handsome pattern, strong and powerful strokes. Zhang Jizhi followed the example of Yan Zhenqing, but with the alternation of the middle and side stroke techniques, rendering a style of bold primitive simplicity and resoluteness and decisiveness. Despite the fact that there is no seal mark of the author, judging from the style of the scroll, it is evidently the handwriting of Zhang Jizhi. At the end of the scroll, there are prefaces and postscripts of Wu Kuan, Li Dongyang of the Ming dynasty, which are comments on Zhang Jizhi's calligraphy. At the front of the scroll, there are the full text rubbings of Dai Lou Yuan Ji recorded by Wang Zhilin of the Qing dynasty. Few of Zhang Jizhi's works survived to date. This piece is one of the author's masterpieces. [Source: Wikipedia]

Gaozong, Imperial Order presented to Yue Fei

“Seven-character Truncated Verse” by Wu Ju (ca. 1145~50-1202~07) is an ink on silk hanging scroll, measuring 98.6 x 55.3 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: This is the earliest surviving work of calligraphy in the hanging scroll format, and it may have originally been part of a screen. The contents come from Cai Xiang's "Visiting Recluse Chen," the poetry reading, "Bridge-side weeping willows touch the blue stream; At the west end of North Bridge is the Gentleman's home. Upon arriving, it is unlike the world of people; The sun is warm, blossoms fragrant, and mountain birds chirping." There is some difference with the original poem, but the marvelous transcription of poetry here combines with a realm of ideals and remote distance. The character structure throughout is slanting and dense, the strokes being quite powerful. The spacing between the lines also echoes each other, much in the marvelous manner of Mi Fu's free and easy style. Wu Ju (style name Jufu, sobriquet Yunhe) was the son of Wu Yi, the younger brother of Gaozong's Empress Wu. His mother was the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Qin Kui. A master at calligraphy, Wu was later praised by Dong Qichang in the Ming dynasty as follows: "Among followers of Mi Fu's calligraphy, Wu Ju stands alone."

'The Classic of Filial Piety' in Painting and Calligraphy" by anonymous features calligraphy originally attributed to Gaozong [1107-1187] and a attributed painting to Ma Hezhi [fl. 1131-1189). This ink and colors on silk album leaf, measuring 28.4 x 35.9 centimeters, originally was probably a long handscroll with alternating images and texts but later, due to extensive damage, was remounted into an album leaf format with painting and calligraphy separated. The paintings employ different settings to interpret the dual meaning of complete filial duty and loyalty to the ruler among people at different levels of society. The texts and images complement each other, fully expressing the intent behind the work of "expounding views in words for the virtuous ruler." Although the style of calligraphy is similar to that of Emperor Gaozong, it is probably from the hand of a writer in the Imperial Calligraphy Academy. The style of the painting, moreover, is completely unlike that of Ma Hezhi, with some of the landscape texturing being closer instead to that of Li Tang and Xiao Zhao. Nonetheless, the Song inscriptions on the endpiece are all authentic, so this album should perhaps be re-titled as an anonymous Song dynasty painting and calligraphy of The Classic of Filial Piety.” \=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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